On Institutional Stupidity | Noam Chomsky

By Noam Chomsky, Philosophy Now, 4 April 15

aturally I am very pleased to be granted this honour, and to be able to accept this award also in the name of my colleague Edward Herman, the co-author of Manufacturing Consent, who himself has done a great deal of outstanding work on this crucial topic. Of course, we’re not the first people to have addressed it.

Predictably, one of the earlier ones was George Orwell. He’s written a not very well known essay that is the introduction of his famous book Animal Farm. It’s not known because it wasn’t published – it was found decades later in his unpublished papers, but it is now available. In this essay he points out that Animal Farm is obviously a satire on the totalitarian enemy; but he urges people in free England to not feel too self-righteous about that, because as he puts it, in England, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. He goes on to give examples of what he means, and only a few sentences of explanation, but I think they’re to the point.

One reason, he says, is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not having certain ideas expressed. His second is a interesting point, that we didn’t go into but should have: a good education. If you go to the best schools you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it just wouldn’t do to say. That, Orwell claims, is a powerful hook that goes well beyond the influence of the media.

Stupidity comes in many forms. I’d like to say a few words on one particular form that I think may be the most troubling of all. We might call it ‘institutional stupidity’. It’s a kind of stupidity that’s entirely rational within the framework within which it operates: but the framework itself ranges from grotesque to virtual insanity.

Instead of trying to explain it, it may be more helpful to mention a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean. Thirty years ago, in the early eighties – the early Reagan years – I wrote an article called ‘The Rationality of Collective Suicide’. It was concerned with nuclear strategy, and was about how perfectly intelligent people were designing a course of collective suicide in ways that were reasonable within their framework of geostrategic analysis.

I did not know at the time quite how bad the situation was. We have learnt a lot since. For instance, a recent issue of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists presents a study of false alarms from the automatic detection systems the US and others use to detect incoming missile attacks and other threats that could be perceived as nuclear attack. The study ran from 1977 to 1983, and it estimates that during this period there were a minimum of about 50 such false alarms, and a maximum of about 255. These were alarms aborted by human intervention, preventing disaster by a matter of a few minutes.

It’s plausible to assume that nothing substantial has changed since then. But it actually gets much worse – which I also did not understand at the time of writing the book.

…(read more).

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